United Airlines has announced that employees placed on unpaid leave for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine by claiming a medical or religious exemptions will be allowed to return to work beginning March 28.

Meanwhile, Germany’s health minister has urged citizens to not assume the pandemic is over as officials report increasing rates of infection within nine consecutive days.

At the same time, officials in China have ordered a lockdown of the 9 million residents in the city of Changchun amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, prompting transport links to be suspended and non-essential businesses to close.

We’re updating this page with the latest news about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the Seattle area, the U.S. and the world. Click here to see the rest of our coronavirus coverage and here to see how we track the daily spread across Washington.

The FDA extended shelf life of J&J’s COVID-19 shot by 3 months

The Food and Drug Administration authorized an extension this month to the shelf life of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, shifting it to nine months from six months.

Ease of storage is one of the vaccine’s main selling points. It retains its potency when refrigerated at temperatures of 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit, while the vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna must be kept in ultracold refrigeration. (A statement on Johnson & Johnson’s website noted that the vaccine could be stored frozen for 24 months.)

The FDA previously extended the Johnson & Johnson vaccine’s initial three-month shelf life to 4 1/2 months in June, and then to six months in July, when state health officials worried that many doses could expire. The FDA said in a news release Friday that the latest extension was granted after “a thorough review of data” submitted by the company.

The single-shot vaccine was originally heralded as a swifter, simpler alternative to the two-dose vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna, and seen as particularly helpful in inoculating homeless people and others whose situations made it difficult to ensure they would receive a second dose, or who preferred the convenience of a “one and done” approach.

However, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine has largely fallen out of favor in the United States.

Read more here.

—The New York Times

Chaos of war in Ukraine could fuel new COVID surge, doctors say

LVIV, Ukraine — The last thing on anybody’s mind these days in Ukraine seems to be COVID-19.

With millions of people on the move fleeing the Russian invasion, health systems disrupted, and testing and vaccination programs suspended in many places, health officials fear that conditions could spread disease. But the pandemic, they said, was no longer a top priority.

“People are not frightened about COVID anymore,” said Dr. Marta Saiko, head of the therapy department at the Clinical Municipal Emergency Hospital here in western Ukraine. “People are frightened of the war.”

The chaos of war has made it impossible to gauge how the pandemic is progressing. Coronavirus testing has largely been suspended since the war began Feb. 24, and physicians have been told to make an observation of clinical symptoms without bothering with a laboratory test, Dr. Oleksandr Matskov, deputy director of the General Public Health Center of Ukraine, said in a written response to questions.

As a result, new recorded cases have declined sharply in the past two weeks, but “the decrease also may be natural,” he added, noting that the omicron variant surge was already waning before Russian troops and tanks crossed the border. Read the full story here.

—The New York Times

On Pacific Islands COVID-19 once spared, an outbreak accentuates inequality

NOUMÉA, New Caledonia — Festooned with hibiscus flowers and woven palm fronds, scores of guests gathered for a celebration during New Caledonia’s wedding season. The aroma of grilled fish and yams bathed in coconut milk wafted over the revelers on the island of Lifou, population 10,000.

The celebration on the atoll in late August seemed safe. For a year and a half, New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific, had escaped the coronavirus pandemic. Quarantines and border controls kept the virus out, just like they had done during the worst of the influenza pandemic a century earlier.

But by mid-September, the delta variant was racing across New Caledonia, home to about 270,000 people. Of the nearly 13,300 people who tested positive within the span of a few weeks, more than 280 people died, a higher mortality rate than what the United States or France experienced last year.

“None of us expected COVID to come here,” said Marie-Janne Issamatro, 56, who spent 40 days in the hospital with COVID-19, after attending the family wedding on Lifou. “The doctors say I am the miracle lady because I wasn’t supposed to survive.”

Fueled by the omicron variant, the coronavirus is now reaching parts of the South Pacific that had avoided the pandemic for nearly two years. 

Read the full story.

—The New York Times

Two years later, Providence hospital staffers reflect as the ‘human tragedy’ of a pandemic leaves its mark

It’s a milestone that comes with a grim death toll.

Two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, more than 6 million people have lost their lives from the virus across the world. In the United States, more than 967,000 people have died from the virus, according to the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine COVID tracker.

In Spokane County, 1,306 residents have died from the virus, and nearly half of these deaths occurred after May 2021, when vaccines were widely available.

For local caregivers, the past two years have been a constant ebb and flow, an overwhelming amount of loss and tragedy tied to the necessity to keep going day by day.

“The impact of repeated loss, I think, has probably been one of the hardest things for our health care workers, and for me in general, you don’t want to become used to it, right?” said Christa Arguinchona, who manages Sacred Heart Medical Center’s special pathogens unit. “And you want to be continually impacted by: We lost another person to this.”

In October 2021, at the height of the delta variant surge, which was the deadliest and most intense wave to date for Spokane County, local photographer Dean Davis captured portraits of 458 caregivers at Providence hospitals in the Inland Northwest.

—The Spokesman-Review

In America, a few days in March 2020 echo two years later

The conversations went like this: It will be just a few days. It can be kept at bay. There will be some inconvenience, sure, but the world will merely be paused — just a short break, out of an abundance of caution, and certainly not any kind of major grinding to a halt. Certainly not for two years.

Certainly not for hundreds of thousands of Americans who were among us at that moment in mid-March 2020 — who lived through the beginning, watched it, worried about it (or didn’t), and who, plain and simple, aren’t here anymore.

“Just a temporary moment of time,” the man who was then president of the United States insisted. Just a few days. Just a few weeks. Just a few months. Just a few years.

The fact is that on March 12, 2020, no one really knew how it would play out. How could they?

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

How three Seattle youth music programs are rebounding as the pandemic wanes

There is something visceral about group music, uniting to create a cohesive whole. As a violist in the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras and the Lakeside Upper School Orchestra, this innate connection is one I have held close since my first forays into orchestral performance when I was 7 years old.

Such experiences available for youth artists suffered massive interruptions due to COVID-19. 

I spoke with students and leaders from three local organizations — SYSO, the Lakeside Upper School Orchestra, and Clover Park High School Choir — about how they persevered, even evolved. They adopted new technology, acclimated to remote formats, and adapted upon returning to in-person rehearsals and performances. But not all programs weathered the pandemic equally.

The beginning of the pandemic brought shared disorientation. When Lakeside’s director of visual and performing arts, Andrew Krus, found out he would have to teach virtually in spring 2020, his response was, “Huh? How were we going to do arts on a laptop?” 

People scrambled to settle on effective technology, often “having to figure everything out from scratch, as we had never been through a pandemic before,” said Izchel Chacón, SYSO’s manager of orchestras and partnerships. Clover Park choral teacher Dr. Suna Chung said she “felt lost, confused, and unprepared” when faced with the challenge of mastering six or seven software applications. 

Read the full story here.

—Yoon Lee

Cities and states are easing COVID rules. Should the arts follow?

When music fans walked beneath the familiar piano-shaped awning and into the dark embrace of the Blue Note Jazz Club in Manhattan this week, a late-pandemic fixture was missing: No one was checking proof of vaccination and photo IDs.

A special guest visited to herald the change.

“Good to be back out,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams told the overwhelmingly maskless audience Monday, the day the city stopped requiring proof of vaccination at restaurants and entertainment venues. “I consider myself the nightlife mayor, so I’m going to assess the product every night.”

It is a different story uptown, where Carnegie Hall continues to require masks and vaccines and the Metropolitan Opera goes even further, requiring that all eligible people show proof that they have received booster shots — safety measures that always went beyond what the city required but that reassured many music lovers.

“We want the audience to feel comfortable and safe,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager.

With cities and states across the country moving to scale back mask and vaccine requirements as coronavirus cases fall, leaders of cultural institutions find themselves confronted once again with difficult decisions: Is it safe to ease virus safety measures, and would doing so be more likely to lure audiences back or keep them away?

Read the full story here.

—The New York Times

China tightens controls as more virus cases reported

China instituted new COVID-19 restrictions Saturday that included urging the public not to leave Beijing and closing schools in Shanghai while the leader of Hong Kong warned that its coronavirus outbreak has yet to reach its peak.

In Beijing, where five new cases were reported, part of the Yosemite housing complex in the northeastern district of Shunyi was locked down after an infection was found there. Residents were ordered to undergo testing.

The government said the infected person was a close contact of an earlier case in the capital.

“Please do not leave Beijing unless necessary,” a spokesman for the capital’s Communist Party committee, Xu Hejian, was cited as saying by state TV.

The government reported 588 new confirmed cases and no death in the 24 hours through midnight Friday. Its numbers are low compared with some countries, but authorities say they are ready to lock down communities if one case is found.

The Shanghai city government, where 22 new cases were reported Saturday, announced schools would switch back to teaching online.

Read the fully story here.

—The Associated Press

Oregon and Washington lift mask requirements Saturday

After spending a majority of the pandemic under statewide indoor face covering requirements, Washington and Oregon will be lifting their mask mandates Saturday — marking a significant step in restoring normalcy.

The milestone, which comes two years after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, is on trend with the rest of the country as public health orders were dropped in droves. Oregon and Washington are among the last states to lift mask requirements.

“We’re turning a page in our fight against the COVID virus,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said during a recent news conference.

Last month — as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations drastically declined, following a surge caused by the omicron variant — Oregon and Washington’s Democratic governors announced that they would be lifting rules requiring masks in indoor public places and schools on March 12.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

These Seattle-area bars and restaurants are still requiring masks and proof of vaccination

King County drops its indoor mask mandate Saturday, one of the last coronavirus-related restrictions after the county rolled back requirements for restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms to check for proof of vaccination earlier this month.

But with businesses free to impose their own COVID-19 rules, and after dealing with lockdowns and staff shortages during the pandemic, not all establishments are ready to say goodbye to restrictions. 

Matthew Powell knows intimately the effect COVID has had on both the health care system and on businesses, as a hospital physician and the owner of The Doctor’s Office, a 12-seat cocktail bar in Capitol Hill.

His bar started checking vaccination statuses of guests in August, a month before King County made it a requirement. He intends to continue the practice indefinitely.

For the time being, his bar will also require masks, though Powell said he’s “cautiously optimistic” they will be able to drop the requirement in a few weeks. 

Read the full story here.

—Amanda Zhou